In the first inning, Hunter Pence came up with a runner in scoring position because of course he did. Over the last nine months, he's had about as many at-bats as a starting pitcher typically gets in a season, but he still skipped the rehab assignment. He showed up, layer of rust grinding against layer of rust, and immediately had a chance to help his team "score a run," which was a beautiful myth our mums used to tell us before bed.
He looked bad. Bartolo Colon threw squorps and squorns to the inside and outside of the plate, and Pence chased. He chased a slider/cutter off the plate away, which is always his bugaboo when he's scuffling. Uh oh, you were right to think. There might be magic in here, but we're going to have to wait for it.
We did. We waited a couple innings. Man, I remember it like it was yesterday.
In the third inning, Hunter Pence came up with the bases loaded and no outs because of course he did. The sketchy at-bat from the first inning was still fresh, and Pence swung through the first pitch, another slider. Uh oh, you were right to think. The story of this game was going to be about Pence being activated before he was ready. What a dumb thing to worry about, but there wasn't going to be a choice.
Instead, he didn't screw up as much as he could have. He didn't screw up as much as he could have. That isn't emphasized to be snarky -- seven-game losing streaks are built on players screwing up the absolute maximum amount. In this case, Pence hit a ball too softly to allow for a double play. A sharp one-hopper to third or back to the pitcher, hit right on the screws, could have done enough damage to screw the team up for the rest of the night. Instead, a dribbler let Pence fly down the line like an emu slipping on marbles, and the first run of the game scored.
And we remembered what it was like to have fun watching Pence play baseball. After months of watching normal, generic versions of Baseball Player ver. 9.0, we remembered what it was like to watch an awkward swing and a mad scramble down the line, what it was like for those things to lead to positive Giants moments of mirth. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, which is basically Pence's senior yearbook quote. If that was it for Pence, his one contribution, it would have been enough.
It wasn't his one contribution. Look at this glorious play:
Shots of the throw still can't explain how Pence has a strong, accurate arm.
Watched in slow-motion about 30 times. Still don't know how he does that. What is he looking at when the ball is released? He looks like a blooper reel from the "Man in the Box" video, but in the most graceful way possible.
It wasn't just a play to save a run, though. While that was a neat benefit, the real pleasure came from listening to the crowd with something to buzz about. It had been a while since Giants fans could ooh and aah about anything baseball-related. The ambient noise stayed high for the rest of the inning, and Pence got a standing ovation as he got to the dugout.
Hunter Pence taught us how to feel again, dammit. He taught us how to feel. Where is that in your stupid WAR stats, huh? WHERE IS THAT ACCOUNTED FOR, NERD? I, uh, sorry, must have blacked out for a bit there, but it's nights like this that make me believe in the power of one player, whether he's coming back from injury or yelling at them before an NLDS game. It can't be quantified, possibly because it doesn't exist, and that's fine. Pence played every game in 2013, after all.
Still, tell me you didn't get fuzzies watching him tumble and twitch out there tonight. If the players want to believe those fuzzies can translate to wins, I'm a true believer. Right behind them. Maybe one player really can be the tipping point.
Ah, but it wasn't just one player. Matt Cain was back at home for the first time in almost a year, and he had his first ohhh-that-Matt-Cain start in over a year. It's been so long, I'll be honest, I don't remember what the end days were like for Cain in 2014. He had a 1.86 ERA over his last three 2014 starts, so you couldn't see where the leaks were, I remember that much. But could he pump high fastballs by hitters who respected the offspeed stuff enough to look for it? Was he throwing changeups on first pitches to get ahead, and was he throwing curves in 3-2 counts because he was confident in those pitches?
Maybe. I really can't remember, and I'll probably take a look tomorrow. What I do know is that he was doing that today. The command is still a little unrefined, though improved over his last outing, but the stuff is crisp. Mets hitters had that little hesitation with the fastball, often fouling them away instead of squaring them off. All of his pitches were effective, and you could see it with the Mets' approach. Cain got 13 whiffs on the night, which is on the high side for him compared to last year's starts.
On one hand, I want to wave it all away with an explanation of "Mets." On the other hand, the Mets swung and missed just three times against Cain the last time they saw him. It was a different lineup, but still. It's annoying to assume the other team failed, not that Cain succeeded. It's not nearly fanboyish enough, and Tuesday night was the Night of the Fanboy and Fangirl, where we all got to squee and shriek and yell our favorite things at our favorite players.
Matt Cain came into AT&T Park and pitched well on the same night that Hunter Pence returned from injury to win the game with his bat, glove, and arm. Since making the transition from curious baseball observer to baseball nerd almost 20 years ago, the Giants have had 11 losing streaks of seven games or longer. I guarantee you that this was the most optimistic I've been about the team after the streak was snapped. This wasn't a "Finally, you dummies" kind of feeling. It's more "Hell yes, Matt Cain. Hell yes, Hunter Pence," that's followed by me crushing a beer can on my forehead.
And maybe -- maybe -- just a pinch of "Finally, you dummies."
I've decided that the foul lines are turning this picture into some sort of optical illusion, a trick of perspective, and it's making Santiago Casilla look like a leprechaun.
I'll allow it.